Q&A with the community
An inside look at the important work being done by graduate students across the country at the intersections of immersive technology and healthcare.
Doctor of Physical Therapy Student
Ben is a second-year physical therapy student interested in applying emerging technologies (VR/AR,Telehealth, Machine Learning, Outcomes Registries) to clinical, educational, and research settings in Physical Therapy.
Q: One-liner. Tell us a little bit about what you're currently working on.
A: Currently a second-year PT student developing an immersive and interactive patient interview simulator.
Q: Do you remember your first-ever VR experience? Where was it, and what was it?
A: I will never forget my first experience. Using the Oculus Go, I entered an app called Wander, which uses Google Maps to provide 360˚ panoramas from around the world. Having just returned from Cape Town, South Africa, I immediately headed to Table Mountain. The 360˚ image loaded and my jaw-dropped…I immediately understood the hype. I felt like I was there again and could not believe how immersive it felt.
Q: How did you first become interested in using VR in your particular healthcare setting?
A: Albert Einstein once said: “Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.”
This statement resonated with me because I have always been interested in learning but also found school to be boring and too focused on passing tests. One thing led to another, and I found myself staring at this quote once again on IKONA’s homepage.
After exploring their vision and website I became very interested in VR for healthcare educational purposes. Our educational institutions certainly produce capable and knowledgeable graduates at all levels, but as a current student I can attest that the way we learn (PowerPoints and three hour lectures) is far from optimal. The brain’s learning systems are optimized for experiential learning, and while clinicals and residencies provide excellent opportunities for this, they are resource intensive and expensive. We need more experience and safe places to fail, which is where the true learning occurs.
VR is cheap, scalable, can offer standardized experiences, provides massive amounts of data for insights, and is immersive and engaging. It is an alternative that, if used creatively, could supplement current experiential learning opportunities. And above all, VR can provide a safe learning environment where the limits of failure can be explored and analyzed.
Let's talk about your work.
Q: Why is right now an exciting time to be involved in using VR in a clinical setting?
A. VR offers something highly coveted in healthcare: the opportunity to personalize. From the patient perspective, VR offers many solutions for pain management, engagement, and education. From the clinician perspective, VR provides optimal training/educational opportunities, patient adherence benefits, and massive amounts of data. It is a platform that could converge components of healthcare, data science, and the arts into a uniquely personalized healthcare experience, for both patients and providers. These are incredibly exciting times because it’s becoming easier and cheaper to create these personalized experiences. And then there is the “timing” part that is also exciting.
They say mass adoption doesn’t happen unless the timing is correct and the product is 10x better than anything out there. Given that the mainstream computing platform changes every 10-15 years, and the last platform (smartphone) came out in 2007, I’d argue we are closing in on some “correct” timing. And as for the 10x part, have you tried VR yet?
Q: What is it about VR in particular that makes it a good fit for what you’re doing?
A. The most important aspect in my setting is the ease of use. What makes VR so novel and unique is its ability to provide an immersive experience within a small, portable box. It sounds odd when it’s framed that way, but geographical/financial/organizational barriers no longer exist when you have access to a VR device. It has potential to be a truly transformative educational tool.
Q: What do you wish your peers and others knew about VR that might be commonly misunderstood or misleading about the technology’s capabilities?
A. The cost of VR has decreased dramatically and the capabilities have increased significantly. And it will only continue to improve as more adopt this technology. Now is a great time to become curious about VR and its potential applications and impact.
Also, the neuroscience behind why VR excels as an educational tool is fascinating. Entire books will be written on this, so I’ll leave you with a small snippet by learning scientist Todd Maddox:
“With experience-based learning, broad-based brain activation occurs in synchrony, and results in multiple, interconnected memory traces that are less susceptible to forgetting.”
Q: Are there any aspects of VR that you’ve found to be underwhelming, over-hyped, or that the industry as a whole tends to over-promise and under-deliver on?
A. My mind immediately jumped to the lack of adoption in education and training areas. I don’t think educators realize the power of VR experiences with regards to its influence on the brain’s learning pathways. Our neural networks integrate experience into our memories far more profoundly than text-based techniques. It is how and why we survived predators in our formative years and is an artifact that has made us more intelligent. So why aren’t we using VR to create more learning experiences?
I think one reason for the slow adoption has been the inability of educators to create these experiences themselves. And this brings up a potential reason why VR is somewhat over-hyped: the people who would benefit most from VR need to be the ones creating experiences. We need to find a way to democratize development tools, and this is starting to happen.
Q: Is there a CEO and/or healthcare professional you’re currently following? Who do you look to when it comes to understanding what the future might hold in this space?
A. Eran Orr, of XR Health, is an influential immersive tech entrepreneur who understands the potential impact of VR. They develop virtual therapy tools that could have quite an impact on the patient healthcare experience if scaled appropriately. It seems like XR Health is garnering more attention recently, which is great for them and for VR in healthcare as a whole.
Q: Any teams or individuals stand out whose work has inspired some of your thinking?
A. IKONA’s own Tim Fitzpatrick and Todd Maddox have had a huge influence on how I view VR in healthcare. What I admire most is their focus on integrating storytelling and learning science with VR applications in healthcare. This convergence excites me because it seems like a big step towards providing a more personalized, empathetic healthcare experience.
Onward. What might the future look like?
Q: Do you think there are any underserved areas within healthcare where VR has the potential to make an immediate impact?
A. Pain management is a fascinating area. In PT school, we learn constantly about how pain is very cognitive and unique to each individual. This is not how our healthcare system views pain. Currently, we use a cookie cutter technique of drug prescription and…well, that’s pretty much it. Stunning, in my opinion.
VR has the potential to make an immediate impact on pain management. Some hospitals, such as Cedars-Sinai in LA are already studying VR’s impact, and early results are very promising. VR has the capability to “distract” the brain away from pain due to its immersive visual and auditory features. Given the tragic impact of our ongoing Opioid Crisis, now is a great time for alternatives such as VR, and Physical Therapy for that matter, to influence pain management and reduce the costs of care.
Q: It seems like mass adoption is eternally just around the corner. Are there any catalysts that you think might help get us there a bit faster? (regulatory, hardware, new industry entrants, payers, geography, etc)
A. 5G is an interesting concept (more streaming capabilities) along with the new GPU processing units (higher resolutions and more complex VR apps) produced by giants like Qualcomm. I’m also keeping my eye on healthcare regulation with regards to Telehealth, as that has an enormous potential to knock down all kinds of barriers and could pose interesting implications for VR.
With any new technology, timing is the most important catalyst for mass adoption. The culmination of “small” advancements often leads to a tipping point, and the masses miss these seemingly insignificant moments. Maybe this is because we struggle to understand the capabilities of exponential technologies, such as VR. But an exponential technology like VR is somewhat insignificant on its own. So is Artificial Intelligence, or 5G for that matter. Only when these technologies converge can we really start imagining what could be, and it is easy to see why mass adoption is so difficult to predict.
But the best way to predict the future is to create it.
When VR is capable of handling more complex software, can stream this complex software fluidly, and is beautifully simple and portable, we can start talking seriously about mass adoption. We might be getting close to this tipping point, but nobody knows which drop will cause the bucket to finally tip.
Q: Okay, here’s the ‘there-is-no-box’ question: what’s your vision for the potential of VR’s role in the future of healthcare?
A. I believe VR has the potential to revolutionize the patient experience in healthcare. With VR, we can make care more personalized, data-driven, and human-centered. But we have a long way to go and many questions to ponder.
Imagine VR being used in the classroom to practice patient-centered interviewing or to explore anatomical/physiological systems or to offer clinical observational experiences.
Imagine VR’s use for patients before entering the operating room or as an alternative to Opioid use in the hospital bed or as an educational post-op and rehabilitative tool.
Imagine VR for the provider, as a patient-distraction tool or as a data production tool or as a training tool.
Because of its immersive nature, VR can alter our perceptions, which very few technologies can achieve. Our perception is our reality, but the reality is it is just a perception.
What if we could perceive healthcare experiences from different perspectives? What impact could this have on patient outcomes and satisfaction, or provider competence and empathy, or student preparedness and creativity?
The potential for VR in healthcare is immense, and its use cases should always contribute, directly or indirectly, towards creating a more patient-centered experience.
Q: You made it to the end. You also might have inspired some people out there who are now reading this. How should they get in touch with you?
A. If anyone is interested in collaborating in the physical therapy space, I would love to get in touch. The best ways to reach me are through LinkedIn or firstname.lastname@example.org.